AFP - Some 40,000 Georgians rallied on Thursday at the start of a campaign to force President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign, an effort led by opponents emboldened by last year's disastrous war with Russia.
Opposition leaders, their ranks swollen by defectors, have promised to demonstrate daily outside parliament in Tbilisi until Saakashvili resigns.
They accuse him of exercising an authoritarian streak to stifle democratic reforms that were promised in the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept him to power in the former Soviet republic.
War in August, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway South Ossetia region and sent tanks to within 40 km (25 miles) of Tbilisi, emboldened critics who say the president has made too many mistakes to stay in power until 2013.
But turnout was down on opposition forecasts of 150,000, reflecting what analysts say is a lack of strong opposition leadership, unity or support beyond the capital.
"We came here with a very firm demand to make Saakashvili resign," said Manana, an elderly protester. "We won't go home this time, and we'll stand here till the end."
Diplomats say Saakashvili's position still appears to be strong despite the war, which saw several allies desert him and repeated cabinet reshuffles.
Many Georgians are tired of political bickering in the capital and are sympathetic to government calls for stability as a global economic crisis deepens.
Some Georgians see Saakashvili as brash and impulsive and question his handling of the war. But he draws support from the prevailing consensus in the country that Russia was to blame.
The West -- drawing oil and gas through Georgia from the Caspian Sea -- is watching for a possible repeat of a November
2007 crackdown, when police firing teargas and rubber bullets dispersed the last major demonstrations against Saakashvili.
Police denied allegations they had detained around 60 opposition activists overnight in the town of Rustavi southeast of Tbilisi.
"They were planning to come to Tbilisi today to attend the rally," said a spokeswoman for the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party of former Saakashvili ally Nino Burjanadze.
Asked about the allegation, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili replied: "It's not true."
Fire crews and hundreds of police in full riot gear entered the courtyard of the parliament in central Tbilisi overnight.
Saakashvili's young, mainly Western-educated team came to power blessed by former U.S. president George W. Bush as a "beacon of liberty". But the light has faded and diplomats say Barack Obama's administration will be less forgiving of any crackdown.
Thursday's rally is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of a bloody crackdown by Soviet troops in the twilight of the Soviet Union against Georgian protesters demanding independence for the republic of 4.5 million people.
Saakashvili joined hundreds of people in front of the parliament in the morning to remember the victims. "Georgia today, as never before, needs unity and firmness," he said. "We are a democratic state and people have different opinions."
Fear of unrest has been fed by the authorities, who in March said they had uncovered a plot to overthrow the government. Police arrested 10 men with suspected opposition links were arrested and released secretly filmed video of them apparently buying weapons.
The opposition accused the authorities of conducting a smear campaign.